They’re not recreating Jurassic Park, but students at Olathe North High School are getting some hands-on time with real dinosaur bones and other fossils. As part of the school’s Geoscience Academy, students learn to identify, clean and reassemble various fossils and dinosaur bones.
It all started about 15 years ago when paleontologist and Olathe High School grad Craig Sundell donated a triceratops skeleton to the school, which is now Olathe North, with the idea that middle and high school students could learn how to clean and prepare it for display.
Now, they’re hard at work on a hadrosaur. Alan Detrich, a friend of Sundell, found the hadrosaur bones found in Montana and has loaned them to the school for students to work on them.
“If you go too fast, you’ll break part of the shell or any fossil. It’s all patience. That’s most of what you need,” said 15-year-old Quinton Mindrup.
That applies to other fossils, as well, like the 31-million-year-old tortoise shell they’re also cleaning. The students use tools such as air scribes and micro jacks, which have fine points to work on the delicate subjects.
They examine the color, how the surface absorbs water and other factors to tell the rock from the bone as they uncover pieces.
For the first two years, students in the Geoscience Academy do basic classes, then in the third year, they get to choose either the hydro track, studying water-related science, or the litho track studying rocks and paleontology.
Though he hasn’t taken the litho class yet, Quinton came in after school to learn some of the basics of working with fossils and using the machines from Sundell, who occasionally comes in to work with the students.
“If we can maintain as much of the structure of the bone as (possible), we can actually make guesses and figure out things about what happened,” said 16-year-old Nathan Hurst. “We know the shell’s been bitten, because we can see it on there. We know it was a herd of hadrosaurs that all died together in a flood event. That’s what we can figure out by knowing the shape of the bones and the dirt that they died in.”
It takes a lot of hard work, and it’s not always fun. As they uncover the different bones from the plaster cast that was made in the field, the students make detailed diagrams of the position of each bone relative to the others.
“No one wanted to do it, but we knew it had to happen,” said Weston Shane, 17.
They also use a polyvinyl acetate solution called Vinac to help strengthen the fossils so they’re less likely to fall apart.
It’s very unusual for students so young to get the opportunity for hands-on work like this.
It’s not just the Geoscience Academy students who benefit from the program. Groups of elementary students come in on a regular basis to see the fossils and learn about the process. Several of the high school students currently in the program were inspired to be part of it by going on one of these field trips.
Students in the program get to take their own field trips. Every two years, the group heads to do geological field studies and to see fossil-finding firsthand. Last summer, they went to Wyoming, and in 2015, they were in Texas.
A few of the students hope to go on to careers in paleontology, and others plan on going into related fields, such as geology.